Organic Food is Not Sustainable

Like a shrinking number of North Americans, I grew up in a small farming community. Almost half of my classmates were up before dawn each day to feed livestock, gather eggs, and tend to newborn calves around the farm. Discussions of 4H club assignments were common at school, and class field trips often took the form of a tour of a classmate’s family farm. The closest that I ever got to farming was when my family planted a vegetable garden in our backyard – until we replaced it with a pool. Like my family’s short-lived vegetable garden, many of the farms in my community would have also been classified as organic. This meant that their livestock were not subjected to growth hormones or other artificial substances, they did not spray synthetic pesticides on their crops, and they abstained from growing crops that were genetically modified.

niche-farm@2xFarming labels at home went no further than describing the outputs of your operation. The terms “organic”, “grass-fed”, “pasture-raised”, or “cage-free” were never present, despite the practices all being widespread. The only branding that occurred on the farms in my community were on the hindquarters of beef cattle. The branding of our farms and food is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Another branding term commonly used synonymously with organic food is sustainability. The concept of sustainability gets blindly applied to many “green” products without an understanding of what the term actually means. Many “sustainable” products are quite the opposite and are largely the result of greenwashing products to appeal to the values shared by socially and environmentally conscious consumers.

According to Stanford University, sustainability is: “...the ability to provide for the needs of the world’s current population without damaging the ability of future generations to provide for themselves. When a process is sustainable, it can be carried out over and over without negative environmental effects or impossibly high costs to anyone involved.

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Sustainability is based on the interaction between environmental, social, and economic factors in a given system. With regards to sustainable agriculture, the focus is to keep the environmental impact low, reduce costs, increase yields, and increase access to food. Curiously, organic food achieves none of these benchmarks. So if organic food isn’t an agricultural solution based on better science, economics, or social impacts, then why is it perceived that way in our culture?

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Despite being present for centuries, organic farming and food rapidly gained popularity in the mid 2000s in response to cultural rejections of modernity. The rapid changes in technology created a sense of apprehension and even fear in the march forward towards more advanced technology. Even today, Americans fear technology more than death itself, second only to natural disasters. According to sociologist Christopher Bader:

“People tend to express the highest level of fear for things they’re dependent on but that they don’t have any control over, and that’s almost a perfect definition of technology”.

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The dotcom crash of the early 2000s signalled to many that we may be rushing too quickly into a technocracy. A countercultural push backwards towards a more authentic way of living yielded many new cultural trends, and organic food was one of the most prevalent. Organic was not simply a new product label, it was an entire lifestyle created to reject the destructive, mainstream, corporate-controlled norms of our food, clothing, and any other products a company  could tack an “organic” label on. And perhaps more importantly, it was an excellent way to create products that could command much higher prices.

The organic food movement proved very effective at achieving just that: U.S. organic food sales have grown from $20 billion to over $40 billion in a little over a decade. One of the more curious features of the organic movement is that organic products are sold as salt-of-the-earth, warm, friendly, ethical products, when in fact many organic farms are just as large as many conventional farms. Very little of the organic products for sale at the supermarket are from small mom & pop operations – you’ll need to visit the farmer’s market to enjoy those types of purchases.

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Even more interesting is the ownership of many organic brands. The organic movement is fundamentally based on the principle of mainstream rejection of the corporatization of our food. Yet the largest organic brands are owned by the same multinationals that organic consumers often criticize for their unethical practices. Many conscious consumers have been duped by the notion that their organic purchases are ethically and morally superior to those who purchase conventionally produced foods. This is a costly mistake: Consumer Reports estimates organic food averaged 47% more than non-organic. Paying almost 1.5 times as much for the same product at a chemical and nutritional level hardly seems economically sustainable to me.

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Follow the money: a map of the ownership of major organic food brands

But what about the environmental impacts? That’s where the real value of sustainability lies, right? The common myth presented about organic food is that it is produced without the application of pesticides. Indicative of what is typical in terms of public education on the subject, the David Suzuki Foundation purposely omits the fact that organic agriculture still employs the use of pesticides. However, not only do organic farms use pesticides, they also spray them more often. While organic farming guidelines prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, natural pesticides are still allowed.

Natural pesticides are inefficient and less effective than synthetic pesticides, which is why they need to be applied more often in higher dosages to achieve the same results. One of the most common pesticides used by organic farmers is a toxin derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, otherwise known as Bt. The name may sound familiar, as it’s the same Bt found in the name of Bt corn, a transgenic product of biotechnology giant Monsanto that employs the use of an inserted gene to grant the plant the ability to manufacture its own defense against potential pests. The latter is a healthier for the environment because it’s more accurately targeted and doesn’t come in the form of a pesticide.

In addition to the harmful biological effects caused by increased pesticide use, further environmental damage is caused through the production of and machinery used to spray pesticides and harvest crops. Organic farms still use tractors, combines, and other fossil fuel-burning machinery to plant and harvest their crops. Increased pesticide use also drives up cost in terms of a higher purchase volume and the cost of equipment operation. Organic farming also produces lower crop yields per acre than conventional farming models. These operational inefficiencies are covered by the higher price point of organic food. Higher food prices are the opposite of what true sustainability aims to achieve; specifically, the sustainability pillars of viability and equitability.

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 “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.” – Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions.

Sustainability seeks to build multi-dimensional, stable systems with longevity in mind. Global food security is a serious problem, but embracing organic food is not the solution. Neither is conventional agriculture. While the latter may be more productive in terms of raw output, decreased waste, and reduced pesticide application thanks to genetically modified crops and improvements to pesticide specificity and efficacy, the massive input of fertilizer and continued  application of pesticides to many crops will continue to harm the environment.

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An algal bloom in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fertilizer run-off into the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Erie has produced hypoxic environments due to algal blooms that are detrimental to the balance of life in these ecosystems. Fertilizer pollution is still a factor on large organic farms; the input of nitrogen and phosphorus is still large, albeit from a natural source (manure) instead of from artificial fertilizer. A meta-analysis of European organic farming indicated that manure can actually impact environmental toxicity more severely than artificial fertilizer as a product of water contamination.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not honey bee populations that need help – honey bees are essentially domesticated animals, and do not require the same level of attention as wild bees do. Their populations have held steady since the 1990s. The decline of wild bee populations has been linked to a variety of factors including Varroa mites, neonicotinoid pesticides, and mono-cropping practices of most industrial-scale farms.  Legislation that outlaws neonicotinoid pesticides is still based on preliminary science and a clear link between this class of pesticide and the overall viability of bee populations has not yet been firmly established.

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Source: The US Department of Agriculture

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Currently, conventional agriculture is a more sustainable practice than organic agriculture. The aversion to certain technologies that organic agricultural is based on will always be the Achilles heel of the industry. But conventional agriculture is far from perfect. With the rapid development of the middle class in China and many societies in Africa, food security for a growing global population will become increasingly important in the coming decades. In order to increase the level of sustainability of global agriculture, a paradigm shift needs to occur within industrial agriculture.

Integrated pest management (IPM) is one such approach that holds promise for the future. The complexity of ecological systems makes IPM a notoriously difficult process, but by augmenting natural systems to self-govern themselves, we reduce the need for pesticide inputs, producing reduced environmental impacts and operational expenses. While IPM is often more expensive in terms of capital expenses due to the research needed to adequately test the proposed system, operational expenses plummet drastically once the system begins to take shape.

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A tree infected by Mountain Pine Beetles

For example, extensive biological control work has been implemented for the Mountain Pine Beetle, a menace to timber companies in the Pacific Northwest. The beetles aggregate in massive groups on Ponderosa pine trees to feed and reproduce. Natural predators are attracted to pheromones emitted by adult beetles during this phase of their life cycle. What timber companies now do is spray “bait trees” – these are trees that are dead or otherwise undesirable – with a pine beetle mating pheromone isolated in a lab. The beetles aggregate on the bait tree, and the natural predators of the beetle converge on the tree to eliminate the threat. No harmful pesticides are required, and the cost to apply pheromones is a fraction of the cost of spraying pesticides.

In addition to a reduced pesticide input, a move towards increased support for localized food systems and wrestling control of agriculture away from large factory farms is needed if sustainable food systems can develop. For example, most of the world’s corn is grown in North America, yet almost none of it is consumed by humans. The majority of North American corn goes towards feeding livestock or biofuel consumption. Rising food prices have been associated with the increased demand for livestock feed and biofuel production. North America’s dependency on meat is contributing to higher and higher food prices, and those below the poverty line are the most vulnerable.

More support for GM crops is also needed. The current misguided opposition to GM crops is hindering the progress of modern agriculture. Land is a finite resource on our planet, so in order to maximize the productivity of our land, technological advancement is needed. GM crops are also designed to reduce food waste and crop failure, which have major implications for food security on a global scale. Our agriculture industry will need to adapt to maintain a level of sustainability compatible with the demands of the future. The key is to draw on a hybridized system of agriculture that uses the best of both worlds. Organic food is a step in the wrong direction, and should be abandoned in favour of favourable practices that are based on science, not first-world ideologies.

Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century and whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.” – Roger Cohen, The Organic Fable